Virtually every creative out there turns to designs and images created by others to get inspired now and then. Whether you use web design galleries or other sources of visual inspiration, you’ve probably had times when you’ve felt like you’re spending too much time looking for inspiration and not enough time actually using that inspiration.
This is why collecting and organizing inspirational images is important for designers. It lets you spend your free time browsing inspirational sites, but makes the images you’ve found easily accessible when you actually need to start designing. Here, we’ve put together a guide to organizing your visual inspiration so that you can access it whenever you need it, without spending hours aimlessly browsing.
There are dozens of great bookmarking sites out there, all of which can be used for organizing your design inspirations. While regular bookmarking sites like Google Bookmarks or Delicious can work, visual bookmarking sites are a better fit if you’re looking to save visual inspiration. One thing to make sure of when signing up for any visual bookmarking site: be sure they have a bookmarklet or browser plugin to make saving images easier. If it’s a hassle to save an image, you’re less likely to do so.
Yay!Everyday is an invite-only bookmarking service, though they’re more about sharing images with others than keeping them to yourself. Unlike similar sites, Yay!Everyday carefully selects members, so you’ll have to send them a link to your work or your site in order to get accepted.
FFFFOUND is an invite-only visual bookmarking service, though invites generally aren’t too hard to come by now that the service has grown to reasonable size. And you don’t have to register to view the feeds of others.
VisualizeUs doesn’t require an invite, and even has a Firefox extension for saving images. You can sign up with either a Facebook or Twitter account.
Imgfave lets you save your inspiring images, as well as follow other users. You can create and view collections, too. It works with a Twitter or Facebook account. Imgfave is built on Tumblr, so you can also follow it with your Tumblr account.
We Heart It
We Heart It is a popular visual bookmarking site that you can save images to or browse for inspiration. You can also follow other users, as well as favorite images that have been shared by others. The tagging system is only used sporadically, so it’s difficult to do a comprehensive search of the site.
PicoCool is another invite-only service, though you can request an invite right on their website, rather than having to track down an existing member. The PicoCool community is dedicated to uncovering awesome images from around the world that you might not see otherwise.
Zootool is a great image bookmarking site with tools to collect and organize your bookmarks, as well as tools for sharing them with others.
Image Spark is a bookmarking tool that offers upload tools for Firefox, Mac, and other web browsers. You can also favorite images that others have uploaded. And you can put together collections for specific inspiration.
Pichaus lets you create private collections of images, that you can keep just to yourself or share with friends. You can also follow other users for inspiration.
Ember is like an online design scrapbook. You can save screenshots and images, and share them with others. You also have the option to follow other users, or just explore the feeds of others.
Favorites on Gallery Sites
Most art gallery sites (like DeviantArt) allow users to favorite individual images. This is a fine way to save images on a particular site, though if you tend to frequent more than one or two sites, it can get confusing (“Which site was that awesome illustration on again?” is often followed by an hour of searching across five or ten sites for the image you were thinking of).
But if you tend to only visit one or two sites like this, favorites are a quick and easy way to save images for later reference. Of course, unless you also have the option to tag or otherwise organized your favorites, this can get overwhelming very quickly. It’s not the most ideal solution.
Saving images to local folders is another option. There are a few drawbacks to this method: first of all, it can start to take up a huge amount of hard drive space if you save a lot of images. There are also limits to things like tagging and searching.
To overcome these shortfalls, you’ll need to do two things: create a logical hierarchy of folders, and name your images properly. Using a browser plugin like Pixlr Grabber for Firefox or Chrome lets you take screenshots of any page (in whole or part), and save it to a directory of your choosing. It can also be helpful to add a description to images in their meta information.
Cleaning out your inspiration folders on a regular basis is also a good idea. When you’ve completed a project, delete the images you’d saved specifically to inspire that project. And periodically clean out your general inspiration files, as your style changes or as you start saving too many similar items.
Organizing your image files with an application like iPhoto can also be a good idea, as it makes browsing your images easier. You can put images into folders and then see thumbnails of all of them at once.
Another option is LittleSnapper, which lets you save screenshots of websites as well as organize and edit the screenshots you’ve captured. Their rating and commenting features are incredibly valuable, and make saving images locally a lot more like a web app. LittleSnapper also provides sharing tools that let you upload to Flickr, export images, upload via FTP and SFTP, or work with Ember, their online sharing service.
Start a Blog
Starting a blog might seem a bit extreme just to keep track of your visual inspiration, but if you think about it, a blog has all the tools you need to effectively manage your bookmarks. It has tagging and search, the popular platforms (Blogger, WordPress, Tumblr, Posterous, etc.) have plenty of tools for saving new posts, and it’s easy to access your inspiration from anywhere or share it with others.
There are a couple of things to consider if you go this route. First of all, it’s unlikely you’ll want to create a dedicated website with its own domain name just to keep track of you bookmarks. So either create a subdomain on your existing website, or sign up for a free blogging service. Tumblr and Posterous are particularly well-suited for use as a visual bookmarks site, but other free blogging platforms work, too.
Decide whether you want your inspiration blog to be private or public. Most blogging platforms will let you password-protect your blog, so that’s an option if you don’t want to share your bookmarks with everyone else. On sites like Tumblr, you might want to consider following other users who have similar aesthetic taste to your own for even more inspiration.
Install a bookmarklet or browser plugin for saving new images to your blog. This makes it quick and simple to save the images you want without having to access your blog’s back-end directly. Make sure you take the time to tag and/or categorize your images for easier searching later.
I’m sure a lot of people out there wonder what the point of all this organization is. The idea behind organizing your visual inspiration for later reference is that it saves time. When you need inspiration, rather than having to search the web for hours, you can turn to your own personal inspiration files. It’s the visual equivalent to the swipe files that copywriters often use.
By keeping your own visual swipe file, you can have inspiration at your fingertips, any time you need it. If you have a set style that you usually work in, these files can save you from having to wade through tons of images that just don’t fit your aesthetic.
But There is a Downside
One thing that can work against having your own swipe file is that it can result in getting stuck in a rut. If you only ever save the same kinds of images, and then only turn to your own files to get inspired for a project, you may start to notice all of your designs looking a little too similar.
Make sure that you pull from varied sources for your swipe file. Look for images that aren’t necessarily in line with your visual style, but offer inspiration in terms of form or layout. Look for something unusual you can use to expand your design horizons. Explore new sources for finding images to add to your file, and constantly add new and varied content.
Cameron Chapman is a professional Web and graphic designer with many years of experience. She writes for a number of blogs, including her own, Cameron Chapman On Writing. She’s also the author of Internet Famous: A Practical Guide to Becoming an Online Celebrity.